Cantata BWV 85
Ich bin ein guter Hirt
Discussions - Part 2
Continue from Part 1
Discussions in the Week of April 15, 2007 (2nd round)
Julian Mincham wrote (April 14, 2007):
Introduction BWV 85
This is the first of only three cantatas of this cycle which begin with an aria. Cantatas BWV 85, BWV 108 and BWV 87 were composed in April and June of 1725 and have characteristics in common, specifically the fact that all are based upon, and begin with, the words of Christ.
There are a number of ways in which these three great works differ, not only from each other but also from the bulk of the second cycle cantatas. In some ways they seem to return to the less constricted and more free-ranging
structures of the first cycle. They do, however, retain a balanced mix of arias and recitatives in addition to the (almost) inevitable closing chorales. It has often been suggested that the omission of the opening choruses may have been in order to give the singers a well deserved rest after the performances of Cantatas BWV 4 and BWV 6, the Saint John Passion (BWV 245) and Easter Oratorio (BWV 249), all presented in under than a week. But if this were the case, why saddle them with the large choruses in Cantatas BWV 103 and BWV 108? And in the latter work, why position the chorus in the middle of the cantata rather than at the beginning? Of these three particular cantatas commencing with a bass aria, only one (BWV 108) contains an extended chorus.
Returning to Wolff's theory that Bach's librettist for the first forty works of the cycle, Andreas Stubel, had died in January 1725, he would have been seeking a new collaborator. It is known that he found one in Mariane von Ziegler who created texts for the final nine; Cantatas BWV 103, BWV 108, BWV 87, BWV 128, BWV 183, BWV 74, BWV 68, BWV 175 and BWV 176 although clearly Bach was not always satisfied with her efforts as he made a number of textural alterations (Wolff p 279). It is quite possible that von Ziegler also provided the libretto for Cantata BWV 85 in which case all three cantatas beginning with an aria would be attributable to her. Schweitzer (vol 2 p 331) certainly considered this likely.
However it is also possible that Bach planned well in advance and, aware that these three cantatas would have texts opening with the words of Christ, may have decided some time before to drop the chorale fantasias in favour of the more appropriate bass arias.
All three opening arias are expressed in the first person: ----I am a true shepherd-----You have not asked me----Now I depart----. Having Christ state his own words clearly and directly right at the beginning is logical as well as artistically and liturgically satisfying. It just doesn't fit neatly into the previously established musical pattern of the first part of this cycle. However it is worth mentioning in passing that all three arias commence with a weighty and serious instrumental quasi-ritornello: appropriate for the words of the Saviour certainly, but in each case these musical statements convey a gravitas which reminds us of the beginnings of many of the chorale fantasias from earlier in the cycle. Perhaps the sounding of the first few bars might even have led the Leipzig congregations to have expected yet another chorus. Could this possibly have been a subtle and slightly Teutonic joke on the Cantor's part?
Whatever Bach's circumstances or attitudes towards them, these three cantatas do not appear to be works thrown off in haste. They are carefully crafted pieces indicating Bach's punctilious observation of text, meaning and imagery. Each has its own character, the first (BWV 85) being the most pastorale and the last (BWV 87) the most poignant and serious. Cantata BWV 108 lies somewhere in between. THE CANTATA OF THE WEEK BWV 85 Ich bin ein gutter Hirt I am a true shepherd.
Aria (bass)--aria (alto)--chorale (sop)--recit (tenor)--aria (tenor)--chorale.
The forty-fourth cantata of the cycle written for Misericordias Domini Librettist unknown
This is the most lyrical of the three 'aria' works. The tone is pastoral throughout although it is interesting to note that of the six movements, three (first, second and the concluding chorale) are set in minor keys. It may be, of course, that because the dominant chorale is in C minor, Bach felt it appropriate to extend the "minor feel" throughout other parts of the work; the opening bass aria (Mvt. 1) is also in that key This aria is underpinned by a feeling of gravitas from the first bar. Christ's assertion is that he is a true shepherd------- and a shepherd would sacrifice himself for his sheep. This becomes a central theme of the cantata. The point is driven home by Bach's setting of the opening words 'I am a shepherd true'. This is declaimed simply and clearly on the bass's entry with a minimum of competition from the ensemble (in this case a conventional string orchestra, continuo and single oboe; a second oboe will be introduced in the third movement). It is immediately asserted again. But, a few bars later when it is declaimed for the third time, everything stops, just for a moment, on the word: "Hirt"--True. This is unusual in that Bach seldom comes to a complete halt at an intermediate cadence:- unless it is to make a specific textual point of this kind.
The feeling of gravitas is somewhat mitigated by the flowing semiquavers of the upper strings and oboe. This imitative counterpoint employs a series of descending scalic passages and possibly depicts the aimless wandering of grazing sheep.
The second movement (Mvt. 2) does no more than affirm and reflect upon the message of the first but through the eyes of an observer rather those of Christ himself. Again Bach uses minor keys from beginning to end suggesting a seriousness which the joyous flowing semi-quavers of the violincello piccolo could otherwise dispel. One might have considered the violin as the more appropriate instrument to declaim this virtually continous line. But the darker cello sound is in keeping with Bach's mood of seriousness in what might otherwise have been a much lighter, more pastoral concoction.
The third movement (Mvt. 3) is unusual, but not unique in that it introduces a second chorale; we found this also in C 6 performed a fortnight earlier. It is not here presented as a straightforward four part harmonisation or as a choral development of the basic melody but as a form of chorale prelude, the soprano embellishing the chorale phrases amidst a complex, and, at times, almost dense texture of two oboes and continuo.
(The chorale, originally set by Cornelius Becker (Boyd p226) must have been a favourite of Bach's. He used it to close Cantata BWV 104 from the first cycle and Cantata BWV 112 from the 1730s set of chorale fantasia cantatas).
The next movement (Mvt. 4) is the one recitative in this cantata and it begins in a basking of rich major harmonies. This short musical statement illustrates the great subtleties of Bach's representation of textural images. It begins with a reassurance that the one faithful shepherd, Jesus, will always be there to watch over us and ensure that we continue to enjothe natural peace and articulated previously. The last lines give an example; if the wolf comes to devour us, the good shepherd will restrain him.
The tenor aria (Mvt. 5) is a pure pastorale with evenly flowing string quavers in 9/8 time and a wash of Eb major harmonies. It is a direct affirmation of the Saviour's love for us---'see what Christ's love has brought about!' But without entirely losing sight of this feeling of endearment and goodwill, there is a temporary return to the minor key in order to underpin the serious notion that all this was at the expense of Christ's blood on the cross. The insistent repeated notes on the words 'Und hat am Kreuzesstamm vergossen' ----- and on the trunk of the cross has poured----(precious blood) bring a moment of chill to the general mood of pastoral peace.
The closing chorale (Mvt. 6) has generated some of the ideas for earlier movements, most notably the three-note motive C-B-C which forms the declamatory basis for Christ's opening assertions. More importantly it returns to the minor mode of the bass and alto arias.
We are left with an affirmation of the seriousness of the message despite its pastorale connotations.
Link to the cantata page: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/BWV85.htm
(For the next few weeks I shall be away from home and Aryeh has kindly agreed to send out the weekly introductions on my behalf. I am unlikely to be contributing to the discussions).
Douglas Cowling wrote (April 15, 2007):
Julian Mincham wrote:
< However it is also possible that Bach planned well in advance and, aware that these three cantatas would have texts opening with the words of Christ, may have decided some time before to drop the chorale fantasias in favour of the more appropriate bass arias.
All three opening arias are expressed in the first person: ----I am a true shepherd-----You have not asked me----Now I depart----. Having Christ state his own words clearly and directly right at the beginning is logical as well as artistically and liturgically satisfying. It just doesn't fit neatly into the previously established musical pattern of the first part of this cycle. However it is worth mentioning in passing that all three arias commence with a weighty and serious instrumental quasi-ritornello: appropriate for the words of the Saviour certainly, but in each case these musical statements convey a gravitas which reminds us of the beginnings of many of the chorale fantasias from earlier in the cycle. >
This pattern has real possibility as a creative decision by Bach, especially if he wanted to underline the Easter season's shift to pericopes from the Gospel of John with its frequent "I am" speeches by Christ.
Chris Kern wrote (April 16, 2007):
According to Whittaker, around one-third of the cantatas fall into a category he calls "Solo Cantata" (which means that they have no choral movement, not counting concluding 4-part chorales). This is one of those solo cantatas.
The centerpiece here is the attractive soprano chorale movement for duet oboe obbligato. It has an unusual length for a chorale movement of this time but I don't begrudge a minute of it.
This cantata is mostly strong, but I find Auger's soprano chorale unusually unsatisfying. She uses too much vibrato (so much so that I didn't think this was Auger until I looked it up on the BCW site).
The boy soprano in the chorale movement is quite good, but the other movements aren't as good as the other versions.
Leusink's weak point is the chorales, so it's no surprise that a cantata almost entirely for solo voices will be good. All of the soloists are excellent, making this my favorite recording of the cantata.
Ed Myskowski wrote (April 16, 2007):
Julian Mincham wrote:
Returning to Wolff's theory that Bach's librettist for the first forty works > of the cycle, Andreas Stubel, had died in January 1725, he would have been seeking a new collaborator. It is known that he found one in Mariane von Ziegler who created texts for the final nine; Cantatas BWV 103, BWV 108, BWV 87, BWV 128, BWV 183, BWV 74, BWV 68, BWV 175 and BWV 176 although clearly Bach was not always satisfied with her efforts as he made a number of textural alterations (Wolff p 279). It is quite possible that von Ziegler also provided the libretto for Cantata BWV 85 in which case all three cantatas beginning with an aria would be attributable to her. Schweitzer (vol 2 p 331) certainly considered this likely. However it is also possible that Bach planned well in advance and, aware that these three cantatas would have texts opening with the words of Christ, may have decided some time before to drop the chorale fantasias in favour of the more appropriate bass arias. >
The stylistic arguments in favor of von Ziegler are compelling, but this still does not explain the structural anomalies of the intervening BWV 6 and BWV 42. Bach's planning is always possible, but I do not see how this is any more (or less) plausible than Wolff's presentation of the Stübel hypothesis.
A sidelight on the quality of the poetry, also currently under discussion, from the BCW archives on von Ziegler:
<In his [Bach's] desire to tighten the content he often destroyed the rhyme and revealed "a marked tendency towards an unconnected sequence of several words" (Dürr). For instance, "Teufel, Tod" (devil, death) instead of "Sünd und Tod" (sin and death). <end quote>
I find Bach's version far more poetic. Dynamic, tight, not to mention the impact of 'devil, death'. Perhaps not quite as pretty (as if sin, devil, and death should be). To each his own. I did not attempt to recover the source of this example, it is not BWV 85.
I have enjoyed the opportunity to listen to the recordings by Werner , Leusink , and Koopman . As usual, I find comparisons emphasize the tremendous value of the Leusink set, part of the Brilliant Classics Bach Edition. Overall, this would be my first choice. However, I find it even more pleasant to enjoy the variety of alternative performances. In the key alto aria, Mvt. 2, Hertha Töpper with Werner is unsurpassed, it is always a pleasant surprise how well these supposedly dated performances hold up, even (or especially?) on LP. Koopman is worthwhile, if only for the rare opportunity for comparison of a modern female alto (Bogna Bartosz), as first suggested by Eric Bergerund . Buwalda (with Leusink) acquits himself especially well, this point also emphasized by Aryeh in the first round.
Note that there are two versions of BWV 85 by Werner , I believe Aryeh's previous comments apply to the second, 1970 version. I have been neglectful in not posting a few comments for the past few weeks with respect to recordings of BWV 1, BWV 6, and BWV 42. I found the comments from the first round especially good for all of these, and had little new to add. I do hope to compare the two Gardiner versions of BWV 6.
Neil Halliday wrote (April 17, 2007):
The opening bass `aria' has two motifs occurring in the first bar, which generate most of the material for the rest of the movement: the continuo motif and the oboe motif. The first half of the continuo motif consists of what might described as a slow imordent, and the 2nd half ends with a trill; in fact the frequent occurrence of similar trills is a pleasing feature of the movement (well-recorded in Werner, 1970 ). The motif on the oboe ends with a descending scale, and this descending scalar element is heard more or less continuously in the various instrumental, and vocal, lines throughout the movement. The C minor mood is autumnal, peaceful, and tinged with sadness.
The alto aria features the more or less continuous `cello piccolo (obbligato) line.
The soprano chorale's chief motif, heard on the 1st oboe and immediately followed on the 2nd oboe, (and then continuo, etc) turns out to be the ornamented incipit of the chorale tune that is taken up by the soprano.
Notice the brief sounding of alarm at "if Hell's wolf seeks to enter", via the rising broken chord triplets on the strings, in the tenor recitative.
The tenor aria has a lovely flowing `melody' on the unison upper strings; occasionally the tenor part moves in parallel thirds or sixths with this part. Walton used this movement in his "Wise Virgins" Suite (click on item 8; it's probably the most successful of all the arrangements in Walton's score): Amazon.com
Leusink's phrasing  seems rigid, with always strongly articulated groups of three. Compare Koopman  and Coin .
In the final choral, the last line of text is repeated, with the sopranos reaching high to "Gott" in the lovely harmony of the closing phrase.
Both Werner's recordings   make pleasant listening. The tenor aria is a bit slow, especially in 1959. Preferring the 2nd group of singers, I mostly listen to the 1970 recording. Ed mentioned Töpper (1959) - I was pleasantly surprised to hear minimal vibrato on the long melismas on "rauben". I find Rilling's bass aria and tenor recitative  to be satisfying. Harnoncourt's alto aria  also caught my attention. I find Koopman  and Coin  to be too fast in the tenor aria, but well performed. Surprisingly, Coin is slower than Werner in the soprano chorale (aria).
Neil Halliday wrote (April 20, 2007):
BWV 85: tenor aria
The unison string `melody' of the tenor aria (an aria which Robertson considers to be one of Bach's most beautiful) does have some interesting characteristics.
Let's consider that the complete exposition of the melody is 8 bars long (as seen in the opening and closing ritornellos). This melody begins and ends on the mediant (G, in Eb major) - unusual in itself?
For the first two bars, the melody in bar one is repeated in bar two; in the succeeding three pairs of bars (making eight bars altogether), the shape of the melody in the first of the two bars is always repeated in the second bar (of each pair), though at a different pitch. Knowing this makes it easy to remember the eight bars of the melody.
The whole aria is indeed a lovely expression of the idea that there is no greater love than the sacrificial love that is the subject of the aria.
Neil Halliday wrote (April 21, 2007):
BWV 85: assembly of movements
My preferred 'assembly' of the available recordings of BWV 85:
Bass aria: Werner (1970) 
Alto aria: Coin , or Harnoncourt. 
Soprano Aria: Gardiner .
Accompanied recitative: Rilling 
Tenor aria: Werner (1970) 
Chorale: Werner (1970) 
I wonder if anyone can claim preference for one recording in all movements.
Chris Kern wrote (April 21, 2007):
[To Neil Halliday] Close -- for me, Leusink  is my preference in all the movements except for possibly the closing chorale, but the closing chorale is good enough that I would still name this as my preferred recording. However, I have only heard Rilling , Harnoncourt , and Leusink .
Ed Myskowski wrote (April 22, 2007):
[To Chris Kern] I have just heard the Coin  for the first time, in a radio broadcast on WGBH (presented by host and BCML member, Brian McCreath). I would have to agree with the comments from the first round: a superior performance in every way, although the Leusink  holds up very well in comparison. I hope to hear the Gardiner  soon.
I have not heard all the options, so I cannot exactly state a preference in all the movements. I do think that either the Coin  or Leusink  are performances that any Bach enthusiast can enjoy. I already mentioned Hertha Töpper in the A aria, Mvt. 2, Werner (1959) . I cannot exactly call it a preference over the more recent versions, but I am certainly grateful for the opportunity to hear it.
Thanks to Neil for the stimulating post.
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Cantata BWV 85: Details & Complete Recordings | Recordings of Individual Movements
Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4